A Guide to Rucksacks


Rucksacks come in many different shapes and sizes. Each rucksack is specific to a certain activity or pursuit. When looking for a rucksack there are four vital points to consider before you purchase: 

  1. IDENTIFY YOUR TYPE OF ACTIVITY. You need to decide what activity you intend to use the rucksack for. Are you going on an afternoon walk or an alpine expedition? Make sure you have a comprehensive kit list typed out and if possible, estimate the overall weight of your combined kit. This may not seem very important at this stage, but when it comes to selecting how much capacity you need, kit weight comes into play. Different sized bags handle certain weights better. 
  2. INVEST IN QUALITY. Many outdoor enthusiasts claim that your most important piece of kit is your rucksack. Needless to say, choosing a quality bag made by a reputable manufacturer like Osprey, Berghaus or Deuter is imperative. By doing so you are ensuring that you get a quality bag that isn’t going to rip or tear. Not to mention the significant difference in comfort between cheaper brands and trusted manufacturers. 
  3. FIT. This is the most important aspect of selecting a rucksack. In simple terms, a bad fit results in a bad back. Rucksacks are designed so that most of its weight is lifted off your shoulders and carried on your hips. Positioning the straps to ensure a fit to your proportion is of utmost importance. This prevents over straining the shoulders and back and avoids injury. 
  4. BACK SYSTEMS. There are three main types of back systems incorporated in rucksacks. Generally, the bigger the bag the more sophisticated the back system. 

> STANDARD. This type of back system is often found on smaller bags that don’t hold much weight. The straps and back paneling are foam padded for extra comfort. The body of the bag itself is held against the back. 

> AIR COOLED. This type of back system is often found on medium sized bags. It creates a cavity between the wearers back and the body of the bag. This allows air to circulate and cool. 

> ADJUSTABLE. Can be fitted specifically for the user. When a bag is fitted correctly most of the load will be transferred to the hips. Your posture will be better, and the bag will feel more comfortable to carry. 



LIGHTWEIGHT HYDRATION PACKS. These packs are minimalist and contain a hydration reservoir and a small amount of space to store other necessities. They are commonly used by runners and bikers. 

DAY PACKS. Designed to allow the user to carry enough gear for a day without having to go for a multiday bag, day packs are utilized by bikers, runners, walkers, and hikers alike. Climbers also use a more lightweight version of the daypack on their excursions. These bags are generally between 15 and 30 litres. 

MULTIDAY PACKS. Are used on trips lasting 2-4 days generally and are a popular choice. Their capacity ranges anywhere between 30 and 60 litres and quite often they feature extra storage compartments for specific pursuits, such as walking pole holders, tent carriers, etc. Their back support systems are of a much higher quality as heavier loads are carried. 

ALPINE PACKS. Are generally between 30 - 60 litres and feature minimalist design. They are slim and made from durable materials so they can be hauled up a climb after you have reached the top. They feature a large main compartment and lid pocket. Their foam back system fits close to the body for greater precision when climbing. Compression straps on the side and an expandable lid give you more options for carrying gear. 

EXPEDITION PACKS. Are used on trips lasting over 5 days. Their capacity ranges between 70 litres and over 100 litres. These packs contain the latest rucksack technology and feature substantial back support and load suspensions. They also feature expansion panels which give you more space in your bag and allow you to pack your gear more efficiently. 

GAP YEAR / TRAVEL RUCKSACKS. Over the past few years, backpacking the world has become a national sport for many Irish travelers (primarily students). Travelling between many towns and countries on buses, trains and planes has brought about a new style of rucksack. This adventure travel sack has all the usual qualities you would find in a conventional rucksack, combined with the ease of use of the suitcase. They - 

  • Are airport and travel friendly. 
  • Zip around the front panel for easy access similar to a suitcase. 
  • Some larger models come with wheels. 
  • All straps can be zipped away to ensure that none of your straps catch on the airport’s conveyer belts! 


FITTING. This is the most important aspect of selecting a rucksack. In simple terms, a bad fit results in an uncomfortable carry. Rucksacks are designed so that most of its weight is lifted off your shoulders and carried on your hips. The best brands offer gender specific fitting bags for the greatest degree of comfort. 

The correct way to fit a rucksack is a process that initially takes time to get right but once you’ve used the bag enough, you’ll know exactly how loose or tight each strap should be. 


  1. To start off, loosen every strap.
  2. Lift the bag onto your knee using its haul strap.
  3. Correct your stance and ensure that your back is straight.
  4. Haul the bag steadily from your knee onto your shoulders.
  5. Place the hip belt over your hip bones making sure that it's not on top of or underneath them. And then tighten it. 
  6. Adjust the shoulder straps so that they fit closely and wrap over and around your shoulder. If it feels like your shoulders are taking more than 15% of the packs weight, adjust them until you redistribute more of the weight to the hips. 
  7. Depending on the bag, you should have adjustable load lifters which allow you to bring the bag close to your head or further away. Experiment with these to find the setting that suits you. 
  8. The chest strap seems to be a weak, pointless buckle. However, when adjusted properly it can pull the shoulder straps together which allows your arms to move more freely and brings the weight closer to your body. 

> 9. Ensure that you are comfortable and as you walk try to pinpoint areas that might cause pain and adjust them. 


WEIGHT DISTRIBUTION. It’s very important that you distribute the weight evenly inside the bag so not to throw off your balance. There is no point in putting unnecessary strain on your lower or upper back. 

KEEP IT CLOSE. Try to keep the heaviest items close to your back near your hips as opposed to hanging loosely off the bag which can act to drag you backwards into a negative stance. If your activity has you climbing or walking on uneven ground, it is advisable to keep the weight close to your spine. 

EXPERIMENT. You won’t know what suits you best until you get out there and do it, so keep a mental note when you’re wearing your backpack of places that strain, etc, so that you can adjust them later. 

COLOUR CODE. Another handy trick when packing your bag is to keep similar items grouped together in different coloured dry bags. This allows you to easily locate items. 


The 53°North rucksack experts offer advice on rucksack fit and suitability. They will also talk you through the process of choosing your rucksack to ensure you get the pack that suits you and your chosen adventure. 


Most rucksacks are made with water resistant fabrics, however very few rucksacks are completely waterproof. Investing in a rain cover to keep all your gear dry and to protect your rucksack is advisable. 


  • Rucksack 
  • Rain cover 
  • Day sack 


  • Dry bags 
  • Stuff sacks 
  • Trekking poles 
  • First Aid kits 
  • Carabiners to attach bags and mats 
  • Hydration Reservoir 

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